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Pens provide litmus test for Bolts' defensive progress

Tampa Bay hopes to see improvement after allowing four goals and 40 shots on net in a 5-4 win over Pittsburgh nine days ago

by Bryan Burns /

The last time the Lightning and the Penguins faced each other - nine days ago, also in Tampa - produced a back-and-forth track meet where the play was wide open and both teams netted nine goals combined and had many more Grade-A chances to score.

For the 19,092 inside AMALIE Arena, it was about as an entertaining a game as they'll see during the regular season.

For the coaches and players, it had them reaching for the bottle of Pepto-Bismol after it was over.

Pittsburgh took 40 shots in Tampa Bay's 5-4 victory on October 12. The Lightning had 34.

The Bolts opened up a 3-1 lead and had an answer each time the Penguins got to within a goal.

Video: Koekkoek scores twice in Bolts' win vs. PIT

But make no mistake, no one on the Lightning wants to see a similar outing in this go-round when the Lightning host the Pens tonight at AMALIE Arena.

Well, at least not in most respects.

"If you're going to say the score is going to be the same, then we'll definitely take that," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "This will be interesting because I believe we're a little bit better defensive team than we were a week ago when we played them. And Pittsburgh hasn't lost since playing us. So, my assumption is they're playing better as well, so it should be a, I don't know, we'll see how the two teams have grown in the last week."

In the four games following the win over Pittsburgh, the Lightning have allowed just seven goals total, going 3-0-1.

The Lightning have placed more of an emphasis on their own end since that defensively-challenge contest against the Penguins, and it's shown.

"It's a bit eye-opening when you give up that many scoring chances against a team," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "If anything it got our attention, realizing that we have to be better defensively. You sneak away a few games maybe before then where you're not playing as much of a powerhouse offensive team and then a team like (Pittsburgh) comes in here and puts up that many chances, it grabs your attention. I thought we responded well. We've improved, and our road trip is a good example of that."

In their latest outing, the Lightning shut out a strong Columbus team on the road. Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make 43 saves to record his first shutout of the season and fifth of his career, but all 43 were rather routine, none of the stand-on-your-head, 10-bell saves that were required of Vasilevskiy earlier in the season.

Video: TBL@CBJ: Vasilevskiy wards off Panarin's wrister

Vasilevskiy leads the NHL for victories with six.

"They shot a lot. They shot a lot from bad angles," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said of Columbus' game plan. "I played under (Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella) too. I know what he likes to do. He likes to put pucks on the net from everywhere. It looks good on the board obviously, but at the same time, I think we did a fairly good job of protecting Vasy from those major chances and they got a few and he took care of those and that's what we want to do. You don't want to give up 25 of those like we did previously. That's where you get in trouble."

Tonight's game will be a litmus test for the Lightning to see just how the defensive aspect of their game has improved since earlier in the season when Vasilevskiy was under siege most of the night, culminating with that wild offensive affair nine days ago against the Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Pittsburgh ranks tied for fourth in the NHL with Tampa Bay for goals per game (3.63).

"I think guys have just bought in more," Bolts defenseman Jake Dotchin said. "We're blocking shots, being quick to pucks and just playing the game we know we can play. I think we got some confidence from that (Columbus) game, and we've got to keep that going."

LINEUP CHANGES: Cooper was asked during his morning skate press conference whether the lineup would remain the same as two nights ago against the Blue Jackets. Cedric Paquette is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, and it's unknown whether he'll be back after sitting out in Columbus.

"I can't say that for sure," Cooper replied. "The goaltender [Andrei Vasilevskiy] is the same. After that, it's, we'll have to make game-time decisions just because some guys are nicked up."

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